On this winter day trip from Akureyri in Iceland's north, I discovered the magic of Europe's most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss.
The clouds part suddenly, letting sunlight spill through and lighting up the rushing white water as it tumbles out over the edge. In the glowing frothy water of the river below, a single duck calmly swims upriver, dwarfed by the granite walls of the canyon. “This is the beauty. Dettifoss is the beast” says Thor, our guide for the day.
We’re at Goðafoss, one of Iceland’s prettiest waterfalls just east of Akureyri. The northern region has had an unusually warm winter, and the landscapes normally blanketed in February snows are already seeing the first signs of spring. Surrounding Goðafoss are yellow plains splotched with snow, the river flowing north towards the coast powerful with the melted snows. I wonder what Iceland’s notoriously fickle weather will be like at our destination for the day; Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
It’s a big day trip from Akureyri to Dettifoss, especially in the winter time. Despite the recent slew of pleasant weather, Thor still isn’t sure what the conditions will be like up at the falls. Instead of speculating too much, once we’re back on the road towards Lake Myvatn he tells us interesting tidbits of information about the area we’re driving through.
“This small village of Laugar is the place where the fishermen bring their cod. They dry the heads out, and then they’re all exported to Nigeria” he says. It’s a big operation for such a small town, but it’s somewhat fitting for north Iceland at the same time. The region is all small towns in larger than life landscapes, with an international importance that stretches far past their size.
We reach Lake Mývatn and stop for a quick photo opportunity. Across the frozen lake lies volcanic mountains, lonely little farm houses dotted along the waterfront, lava fields stretching away behind us. “There’s my grandparents farmhouse where I would come every summer as a kid” he says, pointing at a beautiful house in front of a mountain, with excellent views over the water.
“My parents almost had to drag me away when school was starting again, I loved it so much”. I can’t blame him at all – it’s a beautiful spot.
We continue around the north side of the lake, and after a quick stop at the service station in Reykjahlíð we’re ready to make our way to Dettifoss. Once again driving east, a vast lava field appears to our right, stretching away towards the distant mountains of the highlands – it’s here where Thor tells us one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever heard. A man used to live in these parts who made an annual journey into the lava fields and mountains, searching for sheep that weren’t found in the yearly roundup. Of course, it’s impossible to bring them all in during the autumn roundup, and there are always some losses to the herd.
With winter drawing ever closer, his trips were dangerous to say the least – and he wasn’t even the owner of the sheep he was tracking down. With him was his trained goat, who the sheep would follow back to safety when he found them, returning them to their rightful owners. It doesn’t seem real, but Thor assures us that it is; his grandfather knew the man. A local newspaper article about the return of sheep caught the attention of author Gunnar Gunnarsson, whose book ‘The Good Shepherd’ is inspired by the man and his yearly pilgrimage into the lava fields and mountains.
But it’s north of here where Dettifoss sits, within the Vatnajökull National Park, whose territory stretches all the way from the south coast to the north. The Jökulsárgljúfur canyon is home to the raging Dettifoss, carved out by a powerful glacier flood caused by a volcanic eruption from beneath Vatnajökull. Melting an immense amount of glacier ice, the subsequent rush of water through the river bed pressed down so hard that it carried off the earth with it, carving out the deep canyon. It’s in north Iceland where you can really get a feel for the intimidating powers at work here.
After a good long drive, we reach the car park for Dettifoss. It’s slick with ice, and there’s some snow around, but other than that the clear weather has held. We head along the path, which leads us through a maze of black rocks that were washed here during more glacial flooding some millennia ago. It takes us about 15 minutes to reach the first lookout, our crampons holding us securely to the ice and snow that covers everything in front of us. As we emerge onto the metal walkway clinging to the cliff’s edge, the full force of Dettifoss hits us.
I’m assaulted by a wall of sound, the water roaring as it churns out over the edge, cutting diagonally across the massive canyon. From there, a sheet of water plummets straight down, crashing into rocks that are jutting out along the way before disappearing into a shroud of mist. Surrounding the falls are landscapes of black rock, covered in snow that reaches right up to the cliff edge. In the river above, the water shines steel grey in the late afternoon sun, choppy as it rushes over large rocks stranded on the river bed. Moving my eyes downwards in time with the waves of water seems to make everything move in slow motion.
More viewing points are found adjacent to the falls and further behind it. I tread carefully, as some places the snow has almost completely buried the wooden posts on either side of the path. I follow a series of flags driven into the snow that signal where is safe to walk, heading towards another point where I can be closer to the rush of water. There aren’t many people about, and the area is so big that everyone there can find their own space. It’s another wonderful thing about travelling through the north; you can easily find your own space, even at the most popular sights.
After some time, I decide to move on to the other waterfall that can be found in the area. Back along the canyon south is Selfoss, but I only spy it in the distance as the path towards it is closed. The track is covered with ice, flowing out over the edge and signaling that in the warmer months there would be water rushing out at numerous points along the side of the canyon. I’m sure it’s an impressive sight, but for now I just enjoy my isolation with the canyon, river, and far off waterfall.
All too soon it’s time to make my way back to the jeep for the trip home. I’m the first to arrive back, and I chat with Thor as we wait for the others.
“It’s quite the beast, isn’t it?” he says to me quietly, and I must agree with him – the power of the waterfall was palpable.
Dettifoss Waterfall Tour
Cost: 26,900 isk.
Operation: Winter. During the summer, this tour is combined into the Diamond Circle tour.
Duration: 8-9 hours
Pickup: Hotel pickup in Akureyri
What to bring: Warm clothing, good hiking shoes, gloves, water bottle, light snacks.